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Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group C

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Coming off their first African title, Zambia gets a fortunate group draw to start their title defense. A refactoring Nigerian team is the group’s next threat, with two teams who’ve failed to impact recent tournaments rounding out Group C.

Like Group B, there is a top-heavy nature to this group, but while a team like Congo DR provided a threat at the bottom of Ghana’s group, the underdogs in this group sit waiting for a favorite to slip. A mistake-free mini-tournament should see the top two through.

Group C kicks off on Monday.

GROUP C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia

ZAMBIA

World rank: 39; CAF rank: 5; Best finish: Champions in 2012.

The Copper Bullets shocked the world in 2012, defeating tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire in the final to claim their first Cup of Nations. While that result sees Hervé Renard’s side carrying new expectations into South Africa, few are picking Zambia to make a run for a second title.

History: Though 2012 was the Copper Bullets’ first Cup victory, the team had made two previous appearances in the tournament final: 1974, 1994. Despite only limited success, Zambia have been consistent qualifiers for the competition, participating in 12 of the last 13 tournaments.

Players: Attacker Christopher Katongo (Henan Jianye, China) was player of the tournament last year. He’ll line up in support of 22-year-old Southampton striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of two Copper Bullets playing in Europe’s big five leagues. The other, Stophira Sunzu (Reading, England), will anchor a defense featuring the team’s most-capped player, 35-year-old left back Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows, South Africa). Isaac Chansa (Henan Jianye) will feature in midfield, while 21-year-old Chisamba Lungu (Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia) is expected to get the call on the right side of Renard’s attack.

How they’ll play: Zambia’s lack of quality in midfield forces them to rely on the counter, something they proved adept at executing last year. It is, however, possible for them to be choked out of games, something that may explain their mediocre results since last year’s title.

Outlook: The Copper Bullets will need some breaks to replicate last year’s run, but making it out of group shouldn’t be a problem.

NIGERIA

World rank: 52; CAF rank: 9; Best finish: Champions in 1980 and 1994.

Internationally, Nigeria is still regarded as one of the Africa’s elites, a view that matches the pride and expectations of fans at home. But the luster is gone from a nation whose recent results fail to match their talent. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon and have not advanced from their World Cup group since their success in the 1990s.

History: Including their two titles, Nigeria has 13 top-three finishes — the most of any nation — but it’s been nearly 20 years since their last title. They haven’t made a tournament final in 13 years.

Players: After the disappointment of South Africa 2010, players like Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins have been phased out of the team. The only players over 25 who are expected to start Nigeria’s first match are defender and captain Joseph Yobo (32, Fenerbahçe) as well as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama (30, Maccabi Tel Aviv). Attackers Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow), Victor Moses (Chelsea), and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) average just over 22 years old, while 25-year-old John Obi-Mikel (Chelsea) is the old man in a midfield with Padova’s Nwankwo Obiorah and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor.

How they’ll play: Nigeria’s personnel has changed, but their play will largely be the same. Theirs is a stylish, flowing game that tends to work vertically as opposed to relying on possession. Particularly in their front three, the team has skill, pace, and potential, but despite the turnover in players, the question remains the same: Do they have a midfield to match?

Outlook: It’s an inexperienced squad but one that should be able to get out of the group on talent alone. Burkina Faso is capable while Ethopia’s stocking up. The Super Eagles’ inexperience is the risk.

BURKINA FASO

World rank: 92; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: Fourth place in 1998.

Having never qualified for a World Cup, Burkina Faso is the type of nation fans outside of Africa know little about. But with a number of players who play in prominent leagues, the Stallions are a more capable team than their lack of reputation suggests. The question is whether they can convert that talent, particularly in attack, to a team that can do more than merely keep up. Can Burkina Faso actually threaten anybody?

History: The team’s been a consistent qualifier for recent Cup of Nations, making eight of the last 10 editions of the tournament. Unfortunately they’ve only made it beyond the first round once: At home in 1998. Undone by their inability to score goals, the Stallions have been insignificant participants.

Players: Moumouni Dagano’s (Al-Sailiya, Qatar) 24 goals in 58 appearances make him Burkina Faso’s most-proven scoring threat, but left wing Jonathan Pitroipa is their most dangerous player. One of the main threats for Rennes in Ligue 1, the 26-year-old has been unable to find the same success for his national team (four goals in 34 appearances). Now’s the time for him to step up.

Marsielle’s Charles Kaboré plays at the base of a midfield purposing the more advanced Alain Traouré (Auxerre, France), with Lyon’s Bakary Koné the team’s best defender.

How they’ll play: A solid team that’s capable of containing opponents, Bukina Faso’s style typically lacks drive doing forward. The can play either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, both of which will lack drive from the midfield. It’s unclear how head coach Paul Put can solve that problem.

Outlook: This is a team that could take advantage of Nigeria’s inexperience, but not if the Super Eagles play to their potential. The Stallions are waiting for somebody to fall before breaking back through into the quarterfinals.

ETHIOPIA

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: 1962 Champions.

It’s been 31 years since Ethiopia has qualified for a major tournament. To do so, the former Champions needed five goals over two qualifying legs, eventually advancing past Sudan on the away goals tiebreaker. At 31st in the region, they are this year’s lowest-ranked qualifier.

History: Ethiopia won the third Cup of Nations and qualified for each of the first seven tournaments. Since, the Walya Antelopes have only qualified twice and not since 1982. They haven’t advanced beyond group play since the year they won the title.

Players: Nineteen of the squad’s 23 players are domestic-based, with Minnesota-raised NASL forward and former U.S. U-level player Fuad Ibrahim one of the exceptions. He’s part of a concerted search for new Ethopian talent.

Defender Degu Debebe captains the team. He’s been capped 44 times and will be partnered in central defense by Saint George teammate Abebaw Butako. (Seven Saint George players are in the squad.)

Twnety-five year old Addis Hintsa (Dedebit, Ethipoia) holds down the midfield, with Egypt-based Saladin Said (Wadi Degla) leading the attack.

How they’ll play: Inconsistently. Doing forward, the Antelopes are capable of goals (as they showed against Sudan), but they tend to play on the counter while paradoxically leaving an inconsistent defense excessively exposed.

Outlook: The Ethiopians are ambitious, but their ambition is more likely to be rewarded in their quest to qualify for Brazil. They’ll need both breaks and luck to get out of this group.

SCHEDULE

Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Ethiopia
Monday, Jan. 21, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Nigeria versus Burkina Faso
Friday, Jan. 25, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Nigeria
Friday, Jan, 25, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Ethiopia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Zambia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Ethiopia versus Nigeria

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Zambia (7 pts.)
2. Nigeria (5 pts.)
3. Burkina Faso (2 pts.)
4. Ethiopia (1 pt.)

Watch: Scott Sinclair nets stunning curler in Celtic victory

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Celtic is enjoying another fine campaign in Scotland, and much of the team’s success can be attributed to the play of Scott Sinclair.

[ MORE: Burkina Faso, Cameroon progress at AFCON 2017 ]

The Englishman was at it again on Sunday during Celtic’s 3-0 Scottish Cup win over Albion Rovers when the 27-year-old curled an absolutely sublime effort into the top corner for the game’s opening goal.

The finish, Sinclair’s 13th of the season in all competitions, came after the winger picked up the ball on the left side of the Albion penalty area. Sinclair then proceeded to slot his dipping shot just under the bar and into the far post.

Celtic now moves on to the fifth round of this season’s tournament, joining the likes of Rangers and Aberdeen. In addition to the team’s success in the competition, the Bhoys have yet to lose a match in the Scottish Premier League this campaign (19 W, 1 D).

La Liga & Serie A: Sevilla avoids Osasuna upset, Barcelona cruises

EIBAR, SPAIN - JANUARY 22:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona competes for the ball with Ander Capa (L) and Dani Garcia of SD Eibar during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and FC Barcelona at Ipurua stadium on January 22, 2017 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Eibar 0-4 Barcelona 

Four different goalscorers and three points has put Barcelona inches closer to Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, and it certainly was a complete effort for the Blaugrana. Denis Suarez gave Barca the lead ahead of halftime before Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar each netted in the second stanza to give Luis Enrique’s side a strangle hold on the match. Barca now sits just two points behind Real as the season nears its halfway point.

Meanwhile, Barca suffered a major loss during the match when Sergio Busquets was carted off the pitch after sustaining an ankle injury. Busquets left the game after receiving the brunt of a Gonzalo Escalante tackle in the eighth minute.

Osasuna 3-4 Sevilla

There were goals galore at the Estadio El Sadar, however, Osasuna remains at the bottom of La Liga despite their best efforts. The last place side led on two occasions against Sevilla, but a strong second half from the visitors allowed Los Rojiblancos to remain within a point of league leaders Real Madrid. Vicente Iborra recorded a brace for Sevilla, with goals on both sides of halftime, while Franco Vázquez and Pablo Sarabia also inked their names on the score sheet.

Athletic Bilbao 2-2 Atletico Madrid

Atleti went ahead early on against Bilbao, but Diego Simeone’s men needed a late Antoine Griezmann finish to earn a point on Sunday. Koke struck inside of three minutes to give Madrid the early advantage before goals from Íñigo Lekue and Oscar de Marcos gave Bilbao the lead. Atletico has now fallen eight points behind Real Madrid, while Bilbao sits seventh on 29 points.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Betis 0-0 Sporting Gijon
Real Sociedad 1-0 Celta Vigo


Juventus 2-0 Lazio

Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain each found the back of the net early on for Juventus and Massimiliano Allegri’s side never looked back from there. After scoring in the fifth and 16th minutes, respectively, the Bianconeri remain atop of Serie A after picking up the team’s 16th win on the season. Lazio remains fourth following the defeat, now sitting eight points behind the league leaders.

Roma 1-0 Cagliari

Edin Dzeko netted his 14th league goal of season for Roma on Sunday en route to the team’s fifth consecutive victory in all competitions. The win sees Roma move to within a point of Juventus at the top of Italy’s top flight, however, the Bianconeri currently hold a game in hand. Meanwhile, Cagliari sits 11th in Serie A on 26 points.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna 2-0 Torino
Empoli 1-0 Udinese
Genoa 2-2 Crotone
Palermo 0-1 Inter Milan
Pescara 1-3 Sassuolo
Atalanta 1-0 Sampdoria

AFCON wrap: Burkina Faso tops Group A, Cameroon also through

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - SEPTEMBER 29:  Bertrand Traore of Ajax is chalenged by Darwin Andrade of Standard Liege during the UEFA Europa League group G match between AFC Ajax and  R. Standard de Liege at the Amsterdam Arena on September 29, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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One down, three to go.

Two nations advanced out of Group A on Sunday, and neither of the spots were held by the tournament’s hosts.

[ MORE: All AFCON 2017 coverage ]

Cameroon 0-0 Gabon

Hosts Gabon needed a victory to reach the final eight, however, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and co. struggled mightily to break down the Cameroonian backline.

The Panthers failed to manage a shot on target on Sunday, while Cameroon — who finishes second in Group A — recorded a shot goalward just once.

Cameroon will likely face Senegal in the knockout phase after the Lions of Teranga locked up a spot in the next round.

Guinea-Bissau 0-2 Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso topped the group based on goal differential after an early own goal and Bertrand Traore added a second after halftime.

Rudinilson Silva was caught in an uncomfortable position after 11 minutes when the Guinea-Bissau defender put the ball into his own net. From there, Traore doubled the advantage for Burkina Faso after finishing off a Prejuce Nakoulma pass.

The Stallions will face the runner up of Group B, currently Tunisia, in the quarterfinals.

Group A table (* indicates teams that advanced)

*Burkina Faso (5 points, +2 GD)
*Cameroon (5 pts., +1 GD)
Gabon (3 pts., 0 GD)
Guinea-Bissau (1 pt., -3 GD)

Monday’s AFCON schedule

Senegal vs. Algeria — 11 a.m. ET
Zimbabwe vs. Tunisia — 2 p.m. ET

Henry bashes Arsenal’s Xhaka after second red card of season

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (2nd R) of Arsenal talks to Steven Defour (1st R) of Burnley before shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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It’s become a trend, albeit one that the Gunners certainly aren’t too fond of. Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka was sent off for the second time this season and while his side did manage to hold on to three points, the Swiss international has quickly made a name for himself in England for all the wrong reasons.

[ MORE: Arsene Wenger apologizes for sending off ]

Xhaka, 24, was dismissed in the second half of Sunday’s 2-1 win over Burnley after making a rash challenge on Clarets midfielder Steven Defour in the 65th minute.

[ MORE: Gunners up to second place after handling Burnley ]

Former Arsenal legend Thierry Henry sounded off on Xhaka’s latest dismissal following the match, calling out the midfielder for his lack of discipline.

“It’s not the first time. He did the same thing against Swansea,” Henry told Sky Sports. “This one I just don’t get it. Against Swansea it was a counter. Here, he gives the ball cheaply away.

“Why are you doing that 60 yards away from your goal, 25 minutes to go, you’re in control of the game? You misplace a pass. So what? Stay on your feet.

“As soon as you do that, the rules say it’s a red. Is it worse than [Marcos] Rojo who didn’t get a red? No. But the rule says both feet off the ground, it’s a red.”

Since the beginning of 2015, Xhaka has been shown red cards on six occasions dating back to the midfielder’s time with German club Borussia Monchengladbach, and including appearances for both club and country.

Xhaka’s suspension will keep him out of Arsenal’s next three matches, including home fixtures with Watford and Hull and a difficult road visit to Chelsea.